John Williams takes the reigns as interim city manager
John Williams, the man serving as West Linn city manager for at least the next five months, hadn't planned on working in municipal government until he moved to Oregon in the 1990s.
Struggling to translate his master's degree in oceanography into employment, he decided to give it a shot. Williams took a few classes in public administration at the recommendation of his dad, and eventually landed an internship with the planning department at the City of Tigard.
"I loved it," Williams said of his first taste of government work. "That's how it all started."
The council and Williams are preparing to sign a contract, stipulating that Williams will serve as interim city manager for six months, or until a new city manager is hired.
Meanwhile the council and human resources department will conduct a limited search for a permanent city manager. Williams, a father of three, has expressed interest in the permanent position, and two councilors and a number of community members have said they would like to see Williams serve as city manager on a longer term basis.
"We all know what is valuable in a city manager: a good grasp of technical skills, a good grasp of managerial skills, reputation with the City staff, with the community and with the regional stakeholders are all key attributes we're looking for in a city manager. And we have a deputy city manager here, Mr. John Williams, who really fits all those components of a successful city manager," Mayor Russ Axelrod said at a council meeting last month.
From the Tigard internship, Williams moved onto the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), where he worked on the state highway planning program that's still in use today.
After a year and a half at ODOT, Williams wound up as an associate planner at the City of Canby, where he eventually became community development director.
Henext worked a nine-year stint at Metro. He ran Metro's urban and rural reserves program before becoming deputy director of planning, but eventually started to miss the smaller community work of city government.
"I was looking to return to City government. I enjoyed working at the regional level but I was really looking to get back into community building and have a smaller canvas to paint on," he said.
And so, three years ago, Williams was hired by the City of West Linn. He made the transition from deputy city manager and community development director to interim city manager Jan. 6, when the City Council voted 3-2 to terminate the employment of former City Manager Eillen Stein.
Williams said one of the biggest challenges for city managers he's noticed from working with them over the years is the limited resources available to the City.
"There's never enough resources to accomplish the things that council and community want to do," Williams said. "We (in West Linn) have one of the lowest tax rates in the region and folks that live here expect a lot of services."
Williams said communication and transparency are important in helping the community understand the realities of tight budgets.
He noted an erosion of trust between citizens and city hall that occurred a few years ago and said since he got to West Linn, he has tried to be as transparent as possible to regain the community's trust.
"In waterfront planning for example, (Associate Planner) Darren Wyss and I have worked to have a lot of meetings to make sure the community has a window into what's happening and a lot of opportunity to guide it before it even gets to the council or planning commission," Williams said.
Williams said he appreciates the West Linn community's active participation in local government.
"People (in West Linn) love where they live," he said. "Everyone who comes to the table, whether its council meetings or neighborhood meetings, they're there because they care about their community."
Williams said stepping into the interim city manager role, given his work as deputy city manager and involvement in the City's current projects, felt natural.
This familiarity with the City, staff, projects, partners and the community is one of the things Williams believes could help him be successful as city manager.
He also said his experience at the local, regional and state levels of government give him a solid grasp of how they all work together, in addition to the relationships he built at each of them.
'I think I'm approachable," he added. "I think I'm a good communicator and my goal is to use all of those to help this community be successful."
In thinking of West Linn's future, Williams said he doesn't want much to change; rather, he wants to enhance the best aspects of the town.
"People come to start a business here or live here because they like how it is and our goal is to keep them feeling that way," he said.
"For example, we want to make it easier to get up and down main street. We want these businesses to have more space for sidewalks and cafes and stuff like that. We want to make (Highway) 43 safer. We want to make safe crossings but we don't want to change it into something that it's not."
He also noted the Safe Routes to School program and exploring opportunities for commercial development on Highway 43.
The one area where Williams sees an opportunity for big, positive change is the waterfront. He said he'd like to see not only some development by the Arch Bridge, but parks, trails and open spaces for the rest of the two miles along the river, because that's what the community has said it wants so far.
While Williams is excited for West Linn's future, and the prospect of shaping that future, possibly as city manager, he said his priority is not landing the permanent city manager position.
"Right now I'm more focused on getting this interim job done than I am thinking about what comes next," he said.
Williams noted how much he enjoys working with his co-workers at the City and how privileged he feels to do the work he does.
"When I look back at the things that I've done or that I've been a part of, I'm really proud of it. In Canby, we built a movie theater downtown because there was nothing for kids to do downtown. We built an industrial park that created hundreds of jobs. We developed a transit system," he said.
"At Metro, we preserved parks and open spaces around the region. It's fun doing public service because you make a difference. Almost every day, I'm able to think 'something I did today makes this community better,' and that's pretty satisfying."
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